How Team Dynamics Protect Physicians from Burnout

By Lucy Berrington, MS, Vital Signs editor

If your practice values teamwork over individual performance, you may be more protected from burnout than your peers are in less team-oriented organizations. The medical team is featuring large in the transition to value-based care — and it appears to take a powerful role in physician wellness too.

That’s a key implication of a survey and review of performance data by athenahealth. The survey, undertaken in April 2017, assessed more than a thousand physicians’ self-perceived capability — a measure of whether they felt they had sufficient resources and latitude to provide high quality care (capability did not refer to clinical skills). The value of the team in health care organizations is closely related to physicians’ capability, as well as to job satisfaction and burnout risk, that survey suggests.

Teamwork-Capability Link

“Doctors in our survey who agreed with the statement that ‘Our practice values teamwork more than individual performance’ were over three times more capable and five times more willing to go above and beyond in their jobs and to recommend and stay with their organizations,” wrote Josh Gray, vice president of research at athenahealth, in a review of the findings published on the company website in October. “Physicians who agreed with the teamwork statement were also 75 percent less likely to say they experience significant signs of burnout.”

Teamwork is an abstract concept; its manifestations are more concrete. Effective clinical teams, for example, empower nonphysician providers to take on more responsibilities. In turn, physicians can focus on clinical challenges, driving increased job satisfaction and capability.

Why Teams Work

Researchers of health care systems have been exploring what makes medical teams more (or less) effective. A recurring focus of that work is relational coordination — a term that aims to capture the human interactions representing the ties between tasks and the people who perform them. The core attributes of relational coordination include shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.

On the ground, relational coordination manifests as front-line providers in direct contact with each other, in contrast to traditional top-down management. That communication shift facilitates more seamless coordination, less fragmentation of tasks and roles, improved work relationships, smoother handoffs, and the enhanced ability to adjust in real time to new information or conditions, according to Jody Hoffer Gittell, PhD, MA, professor of management at Brandeis University and author of Transforming Relationships for High Performance: The Power of Relational Coordination (Stanford University Press, 2016).

Improved Outcomes

Health care studies have linked relational coordination to a range of positive clinical outcomes, including quality of care, shorter length of hospital stay, and improved patient satisfaction.

The outcomes for providers include increased professional efficacy, improved work engagement, more learning from failures and each other, and reduced burnout and emotional exhaustion.


Physician Health Services CME Program; Managing Workplace Conflict: Improving Leadership and Personal Effectiveness. March 22–23, MMS Headquarters, Waltham. Participants learn and practice techniques to improve teamwork and minimize conflicts in today’s pressurized medical environments; more information.

Coaching with Physician Health Services More than one in three of physician clients at Physician Health Services are self-referred. PHS provides coaching resources to physicians eager to develop their professional teamwork skills. For more information, please call (781) 434-7404.


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